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Last Updated: Thursday, 31 August 2006, 14:57 GMT 15:57 UK
Wi-fi gaming gets players going
By Jonathan Fildes
Technology reporter, BBC News website, Norwich

Nintendo DS Lite
Many handhelds, such as Nintendo's DS, have wi-fi built-in
Traditionally gamers have not had a great reputation for their social skills.

Many people see gamers as recluses, mainly male and holed up in their bedrooms for marathon gaming sessions. They only ever venture out into daylight to grab a takeaway pizza, or so the stereotype goes.

But gamers at least know this no longer rings true.

A significant proportion of games players are women and handheld consoles, like Sony's PlayStation Portable (PSP) and Nintendo's DS, have brought videogames out of the bedroom and on to the streets.

Online games such as CounterStrike, where players can be part of a team of players spread around the world, have also helped to shake off this old image.

But if non-gamers have not noticed the change soon they not be able to ignore it.

Citywide wi-fi networks that offer fast, reliable and free access to the internet are springing up around the world and gamers are signing up.

Philadelphia in the US was one of the pioneering cities and now Norwich has taken up the banner for the UK.

"I ventured into town for the sole purpose of playing a game online," said Steve John Jones, a games design student at the Norwich School of Art and Design and dedicated PSP gamer. "I think old stereotypes of gamers being bound to their bedrooms could begin to change over time."

Mass appeal

Norwich's network is perfect for gaming on handhelds.

Screen shot from Counter Strike Source
Even graphical games such as CounterStrike: Source work via low-speed wi-fi
Whilst waiting for our pizzas to arrive in a restaurant, myself and Darren Waters, the technology editor of the BBC News website, whipped out our Nintendo DS Lites for a quick game of Tetris.

But rather than playing the game of falling blocks on our own, we were able to battle against each other and players around the world. Cat, geographical location unknown, taught both of us a lesson, beating both of us easily across the wi-fi connection.

This freedom and ability to play any time, any place, anywhere is the appeal of the city-wide network.

Previously gamers could only play online where they either had a physical connection to the internet or when they were in close proximity to a wireless access point.

"This will be the advantage of a free wi-fi service, and I imagine also that a lot of casual gamers will be tempted to play online now," said Mr John Jones.

Social network

The network could also be a boon for players of massively multiplayer online role playing games such as World of Warcraft (WoW). These games involve thousands of people logging on form all over the world to do battle, adventure and quest.

They are already sociable games according to John Bain, an ardent WoW player and owner of WOW radio, an in-game talk radio channel.

"From my personal experience, the social aspect of WoW is the glue which holds the game together," he said.

Wireless networks like the one in Norwich can only enhance this with more players gaming on the streets, he says.

"It is logical to assume that these players will end up bumping into other players, or pedestrians by saying 'Hey, you're playing WoW? I play that too,'" he said.

"What is currently a far-flung community existing mainly online, can potentially grow into something which breaks down the traditional barriers between internet communities and those in the outside world."

'Fringe benefit'

But not all gamers will have it their own way.

A test of CounterStrike: Source on the public wi-fi network showed that the PC based, graphics intensive first-person shooter would work, despite the relatively low connection speed of 256 Kbps. Typical home broadband is at least double that speed..

John Bain's WOW character
Warcraft players could meet on the streets rather than in Azeroth
However, as the connection times out every hour prompting the user to accept a new connection, continuous long gaming sessions would be impossible.

But it's not just the limitations of the connection that will play havoc with street-based PC gaming marathons according to Matthew Davies, technical consultant of Synetrix the company that installed the Norwich network.

"Modern games require high-powered graphics which has knock-on effects on battery life," he said.

"If you want a prolonged gaming session you'd need a portable generator."

Which means that time is limited for traditional PC gamers, who want to spend hours playing. But then it was not designed for that.

"Gaming is a fringe benefit," said Mr Davies. "The primary drivers are economic and social."

The wireless service is not trying to compete with commercial offerings.

No competition

At the Battlenet gaming centre in Norwich they feel that they have nothing to worry about from the new service.

Net cafe, AP
More gamers are getting together to play
"As far as I am concerned the more people online the better," said Richard Miller, owner of the Battlenet gaming centre. "I don't think the free wi-fi will affect us in a negative way.

"We want people to come in as groups to play together. It's a social experience."

The view is echoed by the gamers in the centre who pay between 2 and 4 an hour to log on to the 8Mbps wired or wireless connection and play games.

"The network here is smoother faster and more trustworthy," said John Barnett, a gamer who comes to the cafe three or four times a week.

"There's the social aspect as well. It's good to play with friends."

And it is this social aspect that seems to permeate all my conversations with gamers, wired or wireless. It has become an integral part of gaming culture and wireless gaming on city-wide networks now has the chance to put that message out on to the streets.

The ultimate test of the influence of wi-fi on gaming could be whether the public perception of a gamer will change in years to come.

Perhaps soon the gamer will be thought of as a gregarious social fiend, playing anywhere and everywhere, as long as their batteries hold out.

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